“Out of the sacred space the sacred text would grow,” says Mr. Boritt. He’s right; those of us who grew up as Yankees know in our bones that our country is sacred ground. I took my wife to Gettysburg on our honeymoon. My uncle Joe (a federal judge appointed by Eisenhower) made a pilgrimage there almost every year and took delight in correcting the guides. I grew up in a little Finger Lakes town where, every Memorial Day, the president of our senior class recited the Gettysburg Address in the cemetery where dozens of our Civil War veterans rest in peace.
That said, I remember a graduate-school classmate telling me about his interview with a CIA psychiatrist who accused him, “You are ambivalent about the Soviet Union.” Well, I’m ambivalent about Abraham Lincoln. Almost nobody is ambivalent about Father Abraham.
Gabor Boritt is a good historian, which means that he tries to tell the truth from the record that presents itself in the sources we have available, adding in an informed imagination based on many years of reading and teaching and thinking about things that are, in the end, mysteries. Mr. Boritt is also a gentleman. He is respectful of the people he writes about, a careful guardian of their integrities, yet not afraid to reveal untruths where he finds them. For example, he doesn’t for a minute portray Lincoln as a Christian; those who wish to “baptize him posthumously” must realize that it is all a part of the mythology that transformed him into Father Abraham.
Mr. Boritt also plays down the effect of the Gettysburg Address—at least in the short run. It has been granted, he says, “miraculous powers—‘the words that remade America.’ Yet the words do not do that. How could a speech do that, especially one that was not heard distinctly in its own day?” This softens Harry Jaffa, who believes that Lincoln completed the American Revolution, and Garry Wills, who says that Lincoln “refounded” the United States. But—and this will be disappointing to some readers—Mr. Boritt does not take them on. One expects Mr. Boritt, as the long-standing director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, to be, in the end, both politically judicious toward his fellow Lincoln scholars and unambivalent about his subject.
The book is fortunately titled and unfortunately subtitled. The speech has indeed become secular gospel, but insofar as “nobody knows” it, that’s just a matter of the incidental misconception that Lincoln wrote it on an envelope on his train trip to Gettysburg. That piece of sentimental nonsense Mr. Boritt takes care of completely, but it has very little to do with the significance of what Lincoln said. The “nobody knows” theme has become a cottage industry in Lincoln scholarship. Progressives like to find mystery where there is no mystery: To parody Dr. Johnson, perhaps complexity is the last resort of the scoundrel. My ambivalence about Lincoln has nothing to do with his complexity; it has to do with his very human transparency. Lincoln said what he meant, even if, in the Gettysburg Address, he left his words hovering somewhere in never-never land, something like what Thomas Jefferson did when he wrote the (uncontroversial, in his own day) preamble to the Declaration of Independence.
Here’s the virtue of Mr. Boritt’s book, and it’s a big one: He puts the Gettysburg Address in the narrative context of the battle, the town, the graveyard, the ceremony, and its sanctification. Nobody with less than Mr. Boritt’s experience, his unique position in Gettysburg, or his judicious temperament could have pulled off a book this informative and this enjoyable. In the end, he buys the whole Lincoln package: “[H]e would fight in the best tradition of humanity, struggle as counseled in the Western world by St. Augustine of Hippo in fourth-century North Africa, with mercy in his heart.” And, concerning Governor Pataki’s reading of the Gettysburg Address at the September 11 memorial service in New York, Mr. Boritt’s solemn judgment is that “People who listen understand. Americans are saying, this is who we are.”
He’s not ambivalent. Mr. Boritt does not hide Lincoln’s racism (Can’t we do away with that? Weren’t many Southern heroes also hypocrites and sinners?) or his politically inspired loose play with the Constitution. He even hints that Lincoln may have given his black friend and servant, William Johnson, the smallpox that killed him. Characteristically, Lincoln had Johnson buried in Arlington National Cemetery, which had recently been created from the confiscated land of Robert E. Lee. Lincoln paid for the burial himself and had Johnson’s stone marked “Citizen.” I think the confiscation and the burial, juxtaposed, qualify for “ambivalence.” It’s a metaphor for a deeply flawed, deeply decent man.
The address itself, the “Gettysburg Gospel,” wasn’t quite a gospel in 1863, or even in 1890. The most interesting feature of Mr. Boritt’s book is his description of how it became a gospel. “Among the reasons for the emergence of Lincoln as a national symbol and the rise to prominence of the Gettysburg Address,” he writes,
were the abandonment of Reconstruction and the need to find a substitute for the Emancipation Proclamation; the growth of a more modern language; the need to Americanize immigrants; and, above all, the democratizing of Progressive politics.
Mr. Boritt approves of this process, just as Garry Wills approves of Lincoln’s “giant (if benign) swindle” in misrepresenting the entire history of the United States up to his presidency, and Harry Jaffa approves of what he sees as Lincoln’s rhetoric completing the Declaration of Independence. The problem with all this is that it reduces the United States to an idea, and reduces that idea to a talented, eloquent, ambitious, driven, flawed, sinful man.
A President who could drive the puritanical Salmon P. Chase out of Cabinet meetings by telling dirty jokes can’t be all bad; and one whose intellectual makeup is close to Theodore Parker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the other Transcendentalists (as Garry Wills persuasively shows) can’t be all good. Mr. Boritt describes a Lincoln who genuinely grieved for the 51,000 Americans who fell on the slaughter fields of Gettysburg; but neither he nor any other of the thousands of writers who praise or condemn the Civil War have got into the heart of a man who was willing to preside over and prosecute a war that left almost 650,000 Americans dead. By next spring, the war in Iraq will have gone on for about as long as the Civil War. In proportion, about 5,200,000 Americans would have died, had Mr. Lincoln’s War been fought in the 21st century. And for what?
Mr. Boritt shows (although he doesn’t disapprove) that the Gettysburg Address assumed its gospel status exactly as the Progressives were rewriting our history to save us all through Big Government. And, as Mr. Boritt says, “If in the 1860s the United States was to save the world by saving the democratic example at home through force of arms, in 1917 it would do the same by sending those arms abroad.” In general, the “Progressive movement, striving for the common man, for democratization, turned the Gettysburg Address into a manifesto.” Thus, what was meant as “a war speech” became a 272-word set piece for a progressive ideology. In Wilson’s hands, and in FDR’s, that ideology became the foundation for empire.
Garry Wills, Mr. Boritt, and Harry Jaffa all agree that the Gettysburg Address “is the consummate epitome of a quarter-century of Lincoln’s thought and expression.” One does not have to be an unambivalent admirer of Lincoln to realize the brilliance of his rhetorical achievement on that November day in 1863. As Mr. Wills writes, “A nation born of an idea finds that idea life-giving,” so those of us who appreciate the power of words also can understand the sustaining power of the Progressive ideology. Reading Lincoln as I have for over 50 years, and reading Mr. Boritt’s very fine book, I’m not at all sure that Lincoln intended to bequeath to us this ideology; but, in what our Progressives have made of the sacred text, he did.
On our next honeymoon, I think I’ll take my wife to Chickamauga. Three Willson brothers fought there, came home safely, and never were Progressives.
[The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows, by Gabor Boritt (New York: Simon & Schuster) 402 pp., $28.00]
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